Annabel Langbein is one of New Zealand's best loved food writers. With 17 cookbooks to her credit and the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for 'Best in the World for Easy Recipes' in the bag, this is the woman to listen to if you want cooking that will impress, quickly and without the stress. We spoke to Annabel about her latest book The Free Range Cook, adding flavour to food without adding fat and eating Weetabix and hot milk in the bath.
You're often referred to as "New Zealand's answer to Jamie Oliver" – do you ever get tired of that comparison?
No, I take it as a compliment. Philosophically I think that most food writers are keen to help people to cook as it leads to a better, healthier happier life and I think Jamie is a fantastic champion of that. As a busy working mum I'm my own best audience – we all have to juggle and want quick solutions that are fresh and healthy. It doesn't have to be complicated, but I think getting everyone around the dining table every evening is a really important ritual.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Quite driven by nature and the seasons. I also tend to have more of a focus on the vegetables rather than the meat on the plate being the primary focus – for both financial and health reasons. Subconsciously, my style is light. When I first started cooking I used lots of cream and butter to give the food richness but started packing on the kilos and realised I needed to transfer the passion I'd found from my hips to my brain! I went on a nutrition course and had a real epiphany and learnt how to add flavour without adding weight.
What's the best meal you've ever eaten?
Impossible question, but the latest best meal I've had was all to do with family. My great-aunty Liz, who's 87, lives on a farm and we all visited her there – she dug the potatoes from her garden, used chestnuts she'd grown to make an amazing stuffing for the chicken, picked her home-grown baby beans and we had the most amazing picnic lunch in her garden. She also made a pavlova with her own strawberries and her son-in-law opened the first of the Pinot Noir that he's producing now – it wasn't fancy at all but it was all about feeling great, all together.
Is there anything you don't like to eat or won't use to cook?
At the end of a busy day do you ever just say no, I can't be bothered and have a bowl of cereal?
If I'm on my own I do sometimes have Weetabix and hot milk in the bath, yes! Generally though, I think it's too easy to think you're so busy you can't make time for important rituals like sitting down together for food. My husband is very good at getting me out of the office and making me take that important time – it's only half an hour out of a 24 hour day. That's why I'm the master of speedy solutions – in the book I call them fridge fix-its. It's about having things in the pantry – like the Chilli Jam from the book, you can make it one day for a Thai style beef salad, then the rest of the jam's there the next day and you can just add it to some udon noodles, chuck in a few green beans and some crushed peanuts and you've got another delicious meal.
If you could only choose one recipe from The Free Range Cook to represent you, which would it be?
The Strawberry Cloud Cake (recipe below) – because it's so easy. You do need an electronic mixer, but if you have one, it really is the easiest and most delicious and beautiful looking thing. It contains very little fat, you make it ahead of time and freeze it, so it's really handy and everyone thinks loads of effort has gone into it – perfect.
Do your children cook?
Yes, they both do and I'm very proud of that. Rose, who's 17, will often have friends over on a Friday night and they'll cook together – something like a Thai curry and it's great. And if she's feeling a bit out of sorts, she'll bake, which is what I always do too. My son Sean is at university now and all his mates are always asking him to cook for them. He's into really complicated stuff and always uses complex recipes and sticks to the precise recipe, unlike me, I always end up going off on my own tangent.
You travel a lot – which are your favourite cities in the world to eat in?
In cities the food you get is a lot more cosmopolitan, whereas outside cities you tend to get a purer form of the cooking of the area you're in. I think the most interesting cooking I found was probably in Sicily. They did things I'd never seen before or even thought of doing, like taking raw squid and pureeing it, then frying it with garlic, chilli, parsley and oil and making it into a sauce for pasta. There are lots of cross-cultural influences in the cooking there and so lots of ideas – everything from fish cous cous to great pastries.
What would be your death row meal?
I'm by the sea – just taken the wetsuit off after being in the sea and I would have a seafood feast, because I think that's the ultimate in luxury. I would grill lobster over an open fire on the beach to start and there would be abalones, mussels and fish – I'd probably make something like a seafood paella. Then for dessert I'd wander into the nearby orchard and have lots of delicious white peaches that you can smell from a mile away.
Which other chefs do you admire?
Julia Child – she opened the door for people and was the first person to bring the idea that cooking is not about you, it's about others and pleasing others. She gave people the confidence to try to do that. I like to think of recipes as guides rather than instructions – with cooking (unlike baking, where it's more precise) things can't always be 100% predictable, ovens are different, steaks will be cut differently and so on, but I like to think that I provide a sort of road map for people. The most important thing is if something does go wrong, don't panic!
Annabel Langbein's The Free Range Cook from which the following recipe is taken, is out now. Strawberry Cloud Cake
This stunning dessert is a piece of magic. It looks really impressive with very little effort and you can get it ready early in the day or a few days ahead so you're free to relax when your friends arrive. You can use any kind of berries for the topping. The coconut lends a tropical taste and interesting texture to the base.
Prep time 15 mins
Freeze time 4 hours
150g plain sweet biscuits
50g desiccated coconut
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
100g butter, melted
2 egg whites, at room temperature
250g (1 punnet) ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
Line the base of a 26–28cm spring form cake tin with baking paper or waxed paper. This makes it easy to lift the cake out later.
Make the base by putting the biscuits in a brown paper bag and crushing them into crumbs by beating carefully with a rolling pin. Pour the crumbs into a medium bowl and add the coconut, cinnamon and melted butter. Stir well to combine. Press firmly into the base of the prepared tin. It doesn't need to be a thick layer – just enough to cover the bottom of the tin. Refrigerate the base while you prepare the filling.
Place egg whites, sugar, sliced strawberries, lemon juice and vanilla in the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on high speed for about 6–8 minutes until the mixture is very thick and fluffy and the sugar has dissolved. To test whether it is ready, rub a bit of the mixture between your fingers. You should not feel any gritty sugar.
If you do, beat a little longer. Spoon the filling over the chilled base, smooth the top, cover with a sheet of baking paper and freeze for at least 4 hours. The cake will keep in an airtight container in the freezer for up to a month.
To serve, remove from the freezer and garnish with fresh raspberries. Serve at once, cutting cake into wedges using a knife that has been warmed in hot water.
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